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Shakespeare & Beyond

Folger Finds: Photographs of Hamlet in Japan

Claudius and Gertrude in Hamlet
Claudius and Gertrude in Hamlet

In a recent post on the Folger’s Collation blog, assistant curator Elizabeth DeBold shared a small set of photographs, newly added to the Folger collection, that document a 1933 Japanese production of Hamlet:

These five photos provide a glimpse of a production of Hamlet performed at the Tsukiji Shogekijo, the “Tsukiji Little Theater,” aptly named and located in the Tsukiji district of Tokyo. The theater was built in 1923 for the express purpose of staging Western (European, Russian, and American) drama, as a part of an intellectual movement away from traditional forms of Japanese theater. This movement, called shingeki, or “new theater,” in Japan sought to bring many of the new western dramatic methodologies inspired by the rise of socialism and expressionism into Japanese culture.

Read more on The Collation.

The photographs join other items in the Folger collection related to Shakespeare in Japan, such as this page from a 1905 issue of The Sketch, a British illustrated weekly journal. The photograph shows actor/director Otojiro Kawakami as the Ghost in Hamlet, dressed in a Japanese military uniform.

“Otojiro Kawakami’s epoch-making production… heralded and shaped the next phase of Japanese theater,” writes scholar Kaori Ashizu. “This adaptation of Hamlet was written by Kayo Yamagishi and Shunsho Doi, who made the play into a contemporary, domestic tragedy grounded on Confucian morality. One of the most interesting things about the production is that the fourth soliloquy was finally dropped, despite having been incorporated in the script.”

For those of you counting, the fourth soliloquy is the one which begins with the famous line “To be or not to be—that is the question”. Imagine Hamlet without that speech! “Yamagishi, the main adapter, paid great attention to the soliloquy, which he considered “the main point” (daigannmoku) of the play,” writes Ashizu. However, the actor playing the young prince was apparently unable to do justice to the lines. The soliloquy was eventually added back in for later productions.

Kawakami’s production, first staged in 1903, led to a Hamlet bonanza within Japan, but scholar Yi-Hsin Hsu also notes the production’s influence outside Japan: “it  was  the  very  version  on  which  Korea’s  first  Shakespeare performance and Taiwan’s first production of Hamlet were based.”


The photos make me long for a film of this production, although of course it doesn’t exist. When I first saw Kurasawa’s THRONE OF BLOOD I felt a whole new, and important, dimension had been added to MACBETH by way of its translation into Japanese historical, theatrical, and philosophical idioms. The thought of a Japanese Hamlet speaking the “To be or not to be” monologue shines all kinds of new lights on that speech, and on the character, as your article implies.

Ruth Anne Baumgartner — July 6, 2021